Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka from Uganda is this year’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation. She was the first-ever wildlife veterinarian of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and is a recognised world authority on primates and zoonotic diseases, according to the UN Environment Programme.
She would go on to spend three decades helping to safeguard some of the world’s rarest primates, including endangered Mountain gorillas. Much of her work has been in impoverished East African communities where she has helped improve healthcare and create economic opportunities, turning many locals into partners in conservation.
After earning degrees in Uganda, the UK and the US, she returned to her country of birth for an internship in what would eventually become the epicentre of her future work, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the country’s remote and impoverished southwest.
In her early years she found that conservation was not a simple process, and quickly understood how complex tourism and conservation were. She began to focus on improving livelihoods in the remote villages that surrounded Bwindi.
“(That allows) humans to enjoy a better quality of life and be more positive about conservation. When you show people that you care about them and about their health and well-being, you help them to better co-exist with wildlife.”
That began the driving force behind the organisation that Kalema-Zikusoka founded nearly 20 years ago: Conservation Through Public Health.
The organisation provided fast-growing crops to families, allowing them to grow enough food to feed themselves. They also left the community with an important message. “We told them, you have to continue to protect wildlife because it has helped you this much. This is your future.”
Conflict between people and animals is one of the main threats to the long-term survival of some of the world’s most iconic species, according to a recent report from World Wide Fund for Nature and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In many countries like Uganda, the conflict, coupled with health risks of COVID-19, has further imperilled endangered species.
Kalema-Zikusoka worked with national park staff to encourage visitors and rangers to wear masks, not just to prevent transmission of COVID-19 among themselves, but also to protect the gorillas, who can be infected by human-borne pathogens. That work would evolve into protocols designed to limit the spread of zoonotic diseases – contagions that jump between humans and animals – and training for local health workers designed to combat COVID-19.
Now, 21 countries in Africa – including the 13 states that are home to dwindling populations of great apes – have signed on to the guidelines.
“We are really adapting the model of preventing zoonotic disease to COVID-19 prevention,” said Kalema-Zikusoka.
The organisation’s latest project is Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise. Staff teach farmers near Bwindi how to grow top-notch coffee beans while conserving water and using organic fertilisers. “We are now working towards impact investment. It’s all about the importance of sustainable financing for conservation.”
Recognised globally for her work, Kalema-Zikusoka, said she hoped she would inspire young Africans to choose careers in conservation.
“There is a lack of local representation among conservationists. Not many are from the places where endangered animals are found,” she said. “We need more local champions, because these are the people who will become decision-makers for their communities and countries.”
You can watch her video here.